As Australia's religious make-up changes, so, too, is the country's funeral-service industry

The House directors – Kylee Stevens and Christian Willis . Source: SBS World News

A new Sydney business is offering what it calls personalised "memory services" instead of traditional funerals in churches and temples. It caters for different tastes, cultures, and spiritual beliefs.

Andrew Lennox's wife Ann recently died from breast cancer after a long battle with the disease. 

He wanted to remember his partner of 32 years for the individual she was. 

"Ann was not a boring person. She was a fantastic artist, photographer, very artistic writer. I wanted something that Ann would have been proud to attend and would make me feel proud about putting on a final service for her," he said.

Andrew became disillusioned with "traditional" funeral offerings.

"'Here's the menu. You want number 4, number 5 and number 6? Okay, we can organise that.' But that's not ... that wasn't Anne. She wasn't like that," he said.

Andrew didn't give up the search. Eventually, he found The House.

A new tradition-defying funeral home, offering a very personalised experience to make services more meaningful and modern.

Director Kylee Stevens says people are coming to The House for a choice.

"That choice is anything that you're looking for. We're there to make exactly the needs happen. We found sometimes the need is not necessarily defined, people are not necessarily talking about their wishes and their needs early enough," she said.

"But when we come together, we are able to spend time, we are able to utilise the design process, the process of inquiry, the process of understanding and observation. We look at the story, we look at the narration."

The Australian Funeral Directors Association has noted the funeral preference shift.

Senior Vice President of the NSW ACT Division Dale Maroney said less than 50% of Australians now have a "religious" element in funerals, and only one per cent are opting for traditional, solemn funerals.

"The term personalisation has taken hold and we want as an industry and as a community to have more personalised input into the funerals," she said.

She is a fifth generation funeral director, and said standard traditional formulas - from church service, to cemetery; chapel then a cremation - were changing.

"Whilst we have this incredibly traditional element to what we do, we also have opportunities to actually expand what we offer and to be really spot on with what we're offering to our grieving clients," she said.

The House directors spend a lot of time with clients to work out the best way to remember their loved ones.

Director Christian Willis lost both parents at a young age and said he thinks it is important to create a healthy cultural conversation about what happens after people die.

"So I've had a long perspective, 30 years of kind of living with death intimately. So being part of a business where I can just share that and help empower people when they're in that key transition is something that is a nice business to be a part of," he said.

Ms Stevens said many clients had found previous funeral experiences impersonal, fast and corporate.

"Why do people come to the same decision and hold the same type of service at such a significant point of time in their life? We wanted to explore the reasons why everything seemed quite similar, quite the same, and what were the choices that were available to people," she said. 

They've earmarked several venues for services around Sydney, like the Bangarra Dance Theatre, Hyde Park Barracks, Vaucluse House and the Royal Botanic Gardens.

A specially designed paper chapel is also available to take to services at any location, but Mr Willis and Ms Stevens said people are moving away from churches and temples.

"We're becoming a secular society, and people are looking for alternatives. And they're looking for a contemporary expression, one that's relevant to them now, as opposed to, say, a religious one that might be, that could be seen as archaic or old school," Mr Willis said.

Ms Stevens said 42 per cent of Australians wanted to have their service in a non-traditional environment, in a non-traditional way.

"A staggering 68 per cent of people actually don't have their eulogy or their ceremony, their order of service, worked out," she said.

To make things a little different, audiovisual elements can also be included in services, and artists and designers can be commissioned.

Mr Lennox said his wife's service was held in an art gallery to display her works.

"What was very important about the service is that it wasn't sad. Sure, there was some sadness, of course, but there was also laughter, and we were celebrating her life, in effect, by looking at old photographs -- photographs that she took, paintings she painted," he said.

"We even had her favourite movie playing in the background, Alfred Hitchcock's North by North-West. So it was just a very moving ceremony, and everybody commented that it was just fantastic."

Ms Stevens said The House is currently working with a family with Hungarian heritage and incorporating cultural customs into the service.

"We did the research and found out what was traditional in the Hungarian service, and they have a bell lament ringing from within the church or the town or the village, and so we decided, 'I wonder if there's a handbell society in Sydney,' " she said.

"We found one and contacted them, and we're going to have four handbell ringers following the coffin and the hearse up the hill of ascension to the graveside."

Ms Stevens said The House's costs matched the industry average, thanks to a realignment of the expenses.

"We look at the cost of a coffin, the margins that are made within that coffin structure, and swapping out a lot of cost association, a lot of add-ons the funeral industry takes on, look at swapping with something more memorable and relevant for the family," she said.


Source SBS World News

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